Photo by Gil Epshtein
Picture the following: a group of high-school students engaged, curious and asking questions. What more could a teacher hope for?
Who in her right mind would tell the students to stop asking questions?
Er, um, I just did.
I’m teaching the short story “Mr. Know-All” by Somerset Maugham, as part of the requirements of the literature program. This is a story that requires quite a bit of background knowledge, in addition to having difficult vocabulary.
I knew that.
Before the students and I began the story itself they had to check when World War 1 ended and where was Yokohama. They had an online homework assignment to find pictures related to ships for vocabulary items in the story, such as “port-holes,” “trunk” and “cabin” (wanted to ensure they didn’t think it was a cabin in the woods!). I talked to them inL1 about British Colonialism and made sure they knew that India was once under British Rule (critical for understanding the story!) We talked briefly about prohibition too.
I planned to explain little things such as “some countries have names for their flags” (Union Jack is mentioned in the story) or why gentlemen used to need several brushes (not just for their hair!) as we encountered them. I was also prepared with an explanation about superstitions regarding the night air.
I thought that armed with that information we were ready to start the story itself and face the difficult vocabulary.
It is slow going, as I expected but I didn’t anticipate the immense volume of questions!
Here’s one example:
“King George has many strange subjects”. That’s a line from the first part of the story.
I stopped to explain what “subjects” means as hardly any of the students knew what the word meant in L1 either.
Then a boy asked if the King of England decides things such as laws in England. So I tried comparing the roles of the monarch to that of our president. Another student pointed out that our president had once been a prime minister, so he wanted to know if the prime minister can later become a King. Someone else asked if the royal person that got married recently will be the next king. And why isn’t the Queen’s husband called a King too? Then someone complained that he was confused regarding the different uses of “English” & “British” (not to mention Great Britain and United Kingdom) and are those places I mentioned before (Wales, North Ireland & Scotland) colonies too?
I LOVE to see my students taking an interest in general world knowledge but we have a complex story line to follow here! How does the proverb go – too many trees and you lose sight of the forest?
Part of my job is to keep the students focused and I find myself stopping them and leaving some questions unanswered. At our slow pace we have to focus on the information needed to understand the story!
Still, I never thought I would be doing such a thing more than once in a blue moon!